Lessons Learned

By Libby Casey

As the U-S Congress grapples with how best to deal with the fallout from the Gulf of Mexico B-P oil blowout, they’re calling upon the lessons learned in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony today from a former Prince William Sound fisherman.  Joseph Banta grew up in Cordova in a fishing family, but as he prepared for the spring herring fishery in 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped 11 million gallons of oil in the Sound.  He says his family no longer fishes, and he’s now a senior project manager with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, which was set up in the wake of the spill.

Banta told the Judiciary Committee that the nearly 20 years it took to work through the lawsuits surrounding the spill had a heavy toll on the victims.

Sociologists actually came up with a term, called it litigation stress.  Stresses added just by litigation itself.  Not to mention other stresses on up to suicide that we’ve dealt with.

One third of the original 32-thousand plaintiffs died before final settlement and payment.  Banta warned the senators that as damages are assessed, it can take years to discover the full extent of an oil spill’s impacts.  He says the class action lawsuit ended in Alaska before the fallout was fully known.

You see acute things when a creature like a sea lion or something floats to the surface, but when the herring come back year after year and spawn at beaches where oil still leaches out of sediments or substrates, then it really is a multi-year process, and the consideration of that is critical to the process of determining what truly is biologically damaged.

Along-side Banta, Brian O’Neill testified about the legal end of the case.  He was a lead attorney for the fishermen, Alaska natives, and cities.

Democratic Senator Al Franken from Minnesota asked O’Neill if the Supreme Court made an ‘activist decision’ when they dropped the payment from 5 billion dollars to five-hundred million dollars.  O’Neill said it did seem like an arbitrary decision.

If you read the case, Exxon vs Baker, you come to the conclusion that they pulled it out of their bottoms.


That’s correct.


The point is punishment and to deter others from doing bad things.

Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar chaired the hearing, which was attended by only a handful of Senators.  She says it’s important that Congress learn from the Alaskan experience as they craft laws to hold B-P responsible for compensating spill victims.

While B-P executives sound outraged and contrite right now, who’s to say that won’t change in 2 or 3 years?  In the immediate aftermath of Exxon Valdez, Exxon’s top executives were publically repentant.  But once they were behind courtroom doors, they sang a very different tune.

The only Republican at the hearing, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, says he doesn’t think B-P needs to be protected against fully paying out damage claims.

They have responsibility for total clean up, no matter how much it costs, even if the company economically fails.  And I would say for those who would think disaster, I’m sure somebody would buy their oil rigs, continue to operate, buy lands, produce  from them.  It’s not going to end production.

Sessions says B-P is paying for more than they’re legally obligated, but he wants to figure out how to raise the minimum payments in the future – without putting companies out of business.  He asked O’Neill, the attorney, about tying the size of an oil company to its liability.  O’Neill said he has concerns about that:

As much as I dislike Exxon mobile, I’d much prefer they run than ship them out, to have small Liberian shipping companies run them.  And that relates to the issue of these platforms. I feel safer having a B-P drill platform than I do having small mom and pop operation run a platform.  So I would be concerned about subsidizing the smaller operations.  It just strikes me both economically and out of sense of fairness, if you hurt people you ought to pay for it.

Democrats, Republicans, and different committees in Congress are hammering out bills to deal with the B-P blowout – including one introduced by Democratic leaders today that’s tied to an energy bill.


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